The Transgender Religion

The Transgender Religion

By Heather Wilhelm - July 10, 2014

“Religion,” well-known atheist Penn Jillette recently argued in the New York Times, “needs to go away and not be replaced by anything.”

Jillette apparently understands the resilience of human faith. In 2003, the novelist Michael Crichton argued that, despite the hopes of atheists, religion will never really disappear. “I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind,” Crichton said. “If you suppress it in one form, it merely reemerges in another form.”

Religion tends to reemerge in the unlikeliest places. Today, at least in America, the newest and brashest religions hover—rather obsessively, in fact—around various permutations of personal “identity.” For many, whether they realize it or not, “identity” is the new God. Tim Keller, the well-known author and pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, puts it this way: “Our need for worth is so powerful that whatever we base our identity and value on we essentially ‘deify.’ We will look to it with all the passion and intensity of worship and devotion, even if we think of ourselves as highly irreligious.”

Over the past few months, with impressive swiftness, our nation’s growing identity-based religious fervor has risen in one particular form: ardent, impassioned, unquestioning transgender boosterism. In late May, Time magazine announced America’s “Transgender Tipping Point,” featuring formerly male television star Laverne Cox. Time’s article spurred a flurry of giddy media responses; meanwhile, at gay pride events across the nation, “newer, edgier, and angrier” TransPride rallies, as described by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, often stole the show.

The more dramatic examples, however, have to do with children. A Vancouver, British Columbia, school board recently announced that transgender students would be called “xe” (pronounced “zee”) rather than “he” or “she.” Not to be outdone, California celebrated the dawn of 2014 by passing a law “that allows,” as NPR reported, “transgender students to use school restrooms and play on sports teams based on the gender with which they identify rather than the one with which they were born.”

In early June, “CBS This Morning” ran a gushing report, “Born This Way,” on transgender children. Some were as young as 5, and all, encouraged by their parents, were living as the opposite sex. Some, like the 12-year-old boy-to-girl “Zoey,” were taking medication to suppress puberty (“I like the color pink,” Zoey said when asked to explain how she knew for certain she was trapped in the wrong body); others were taking hormones to begin their official physical “transition” to the opposite sex. Meanwhile, “Ryland’s Story,” a parent-created YouTube video, tracks a San Diego girl’s supposedly triumphant transition into a boy at the ripe old age of 5. The video has racked up more than 7 million views—and enthusiastic media applause—since late May.

If you know anything about children, you might find this alarming. Any preschool teacher, child psychologist, or well-worn parent will tell you that children often experiment with gender identity.

Some boys don princess dresses; some girls use their Barbie as a sledgehammer. Some boys will like the color pink and unicorns; some girls will refuse to wear a dress or brush their hair. Two years ago, a study from the Harvard School of Public Health noted that 85 percent of gender nonconforming kids grew up to be comfortable with their own gender—and straight. To insist that a young child “knows” they’re the wrong gender, despite compelling genetic and physical evidence, is a rather wild leap of faith.

“Parents,” CBS’s Rita Braver breathlessly reported, “are beginning to heed the wishes of their children at ever younger ages.” At first glance, many of the parents look like, well, pushovers: Their 2-year-olds throw a tantrum if they aren’t served on a pink plate, and it’s downhill from there. (This was the case with Colorado’s Coy Mathis, who “transitioned” from boy to girl at age 5. His parents ended up successfully suing for Coy’s right to use the girls’ first-grade bathroom at his school.)

But there’s something more interesting at work here. On one hand, the most enthusiastic transgender supporters argue that gender identity is amorphous, subjective, and fluid. On the other hand, the progressive, “open-minded” parents featured in “Born This Way” and “Ryland’s Story” might be the worst gender absolutists around.

In one corner of the ring, we have piles of pink fluff and princess dresses; in the other, we have dirty skateboards, snips, snails, and puppy dogs’ tails. There is no in-between. Walker Meyer, a Texas child psychiatrist who has prescribed puberty blockers in the past, recently told the New Yorker that he’s concerned about eager parents jumping the transgender gun. “I’m saying to parents, ‘It may be hard to live with the ambiguity, but just watch and wait.’”

But what these parents want most, it seems, is certainty.

The “demand for certainty,” as the agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell once noted, is “natural to man.” It also serves as a key driver for a subset of religious believers. The Oxford English Dictionary describes religion as “the belief in or worship of a superhuman controlling power.” In the world of transgender activism, that controlling power is quite clear: It is an all-consuming, unquestionable—and, most importantly, self-defined—gender identity. It is a belief that, in all but a few legitimate intersex cases, defies the physical world. It is, in the end, a spiritual quest.

Those who get their entire sense of self and worth through an identity outside of God, pastor Tim Keller notes, will likely feel driven to “despise and demonize the opposition.” One would hope that, in a pluralistic country, we could all just get along. Unfortunately, at least in its early stages, the transgender faith does not appear to be a religion of peace. When it comes to public school bathrooms and beyond, it also appears to be the one religion the government feels comfortable establishing through the state. 

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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